ACC: Duke Blue Devils
They looked pathetic. Even they won't argue that.
Kelby Brown and Braxton Deaver are two of the most accomplished players in Duke's recent program renaissance, but when they rolled up to Chipotle in Brown's pickup truck, stumbled out of the cab and retrieved two sets of crutches from the back, passersby stopped and stared and the hungry patrons inside snickered through their burritos. "It was a hilarious sight," Brown said. "But man, it was terrible."
That scene - hobbling into a fast food restaurant alongside one another - might be the defining memory of what was supposed to be a climactic senior season for Brown and Deaver. They'd both enjoyed career years in 2013 as Duke surged to an ACC Coastal Division title. They both had eyes on a repeat performance and a shot at the NFL in 2014.
Then Brown went down during a scrimmage last August and suffered his third ACL tear in five years at Duke.
A week later, Deaver met the same fate, his second knee injury in the past three years.
In an instant, all the dreams had vanished. The season began, the team moved on and all Brown and Deaver were left with was another long road to recovery together. "I was so distraught and upset when it happened," Deaver said. "Literally, my life was in shambles, and I didn't know what direction to go in. But the people around me, especially Kelby, they allowed me to see the right path. He carried that load with me."
To read David Hale's full story click here.
The Big Dance as we know it kicks off Thursday, marking the time of the year when Cinderellas from different regions of the country win us all over, bust our brackets and watch their NCAA tournament dreams become reality.
Naturally, we're turning our attention to the gridiron here, as we take a look at a few ACC players and teams capable of having Cinderella seasons themselves if things break right in 2015. You can even argue that Georgia Tech just had a Cinderella season, going 11-3 and winning the ACC Coastal division and the Capital One Orange Bowl, this after being picked as the preseason No. 5 team in its own division.
Kelby Brown: A sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA does not come easily. But Brown earned one after battling back from three ACL tears (2010, 2012, 2014) in his first five years at Duke. The most recent tear -- the first one to occur in his left knee -- came in August camp, ending a promising campaign before it even began. Brown was a preseason all-ACC selection for last season, this after a 2013 campaign that featured 114 tackles. The linebacker is also a two-time all-academic ACC performer (2011, 2013). His veteran presence and versatility in the heart of the Blue Devils' defense will be valuable in 2015, and who doesn't love a comeback?
Troy Flutie: Find someone who doesn't love Doug Flutie. (OK, outside of Miami.) That's what I thought. The 5-foot-10 former Boston College and NFL quarterback was a fan favorite, and he had a penchant for clutch moments. The 1984 Heisman Trophy winner's nephew, Troy, is now looking to follow in Doug's footsteps. Troy Flutie is a 6-foot, 182-pound redshirt freshman embroiled in a quarterback battle at BC, along with Darius Wade and Elijah Robinson. Wade is the favorite, but as we have seen before with competitions that involve a Flutie, that can often mean little.
Pitt: The Panthers are currently working under their fourth different head coach over the last six springs. And their name is hardly ever thrown around when talking about Coastal contenders, especially now with Georgia Tech returning plenty of players from its 11-win campaign. But first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi brings a defensive mindset to the program, and he has as good of a starting point on offense as anyone else in the league, with James Conner and Tyler Boyd back for their junior years. Who's to say Pitt can't compete for the Coastal crown next year, despite all of the turmoil of recent years?
Broderick Snoddy: Georgia Tech may have gone on an unexpected run to great heights last fall, but one of its best players was not around to join in on all of the fun. The A-back suffered a broken left leg in last November's win over Clemson, this after rushing for 283 yards and three touchdowns on just 28 carries, while adding 100 yards on three catches and averaging 22.4 yards on five kick returns. The jack-of-all-trades had been coming into his own for the Yellow Jackets late last season, but with so much turnover in the backfield entering 2015, Snoddy will have the chance to seize the moment in his fifth and final season, something that would be all the more rewarding after overcoming a nasty injury at one of the most inopportune times.
Virginia Tech: It's no secret that the program has dropped off a bit in recent years, going just 22-17 the past three seasons after eight straight seasons of 10 or more wins. Still, the Hokies were derailed by injuries last year like few others. And almost all of its offensive production came from talented freshmen who will only get better. Can they unseat Georgia Tech from the Coastal throne? It is hard for many to root against Frank Beamer, and a late-career surge would be quite the showing for a coach who has given so much to the game.
Boston College fans who'd been eagerly anticipating the team's annual spring game are probably a bit disappointed with news that the team has nixed the exhibition in favor of an open scrimmage. Most fans, on the other hand, probably aren't sure what the difference is regardless.
For the second time in three years, the Eagles have opted against holding a traditional spring game, a decision coach Steve Addazio explained as a necessity to get his team ready:
"These adjustments are meant to best serve our team," Addazio said in a statement released by the school. "We understand that our fans have received this information on short notice, but we know that ultimately they are dedicated to support us as we strive to win as many games as possible this coming season."
While the move comes a bit late in the spring for BC, the Eagles are hardly the only team making changes to their spring calendar.
Repairs to Kenan Stadium meant North Carolina had two separate spring "events" -- including one in Charlotte, North Carolina -- rather than a traditional spring game.
Last year, it was Pittsburgh cutting the spring game from its schedule as former coach Paul Chryst suggested more practice time benefited a young team.
In the big picture, it's easy to wonder why any of it matters in the first place.
Yes, there are some fans who enjoy the game — which is usually a chance to get an early look at the team for free. And some schools pack out the stadium for these spring exhibitions, too. But the vast majority of programs could probably add up the costs and benefits and come to the same conclusion Addazio has this year: There's just not much reward for the investment.
On the plus side, spring games are good recruiting tools, as Syracuse.com notes in its story about the hefty number of recruits planning to be on campus for the Orange's spring game this season. And more and more, these exhibitions are broadcast -- either online or on TV -- to give schools even more of a wide net for recruiting.
But for the players already on the field, the spring game isn't much help. Because it's played under game-like conditions, there's limited opportunity for coaches to work on nuanced issues. Because the crowd is in the stands, coaches typically water down the playbook and stick to vanilla schemes. And because of injury concerns, plenty of stars never take the field in the first place -- limiting depth and setting up the game as a showcase for walk-ons as much as next year's key players.
With practice time limited by NCAA rules and coaches forced to limit hands-on contact with players once spring practice ends, Addazio's plan to maximize his opportunities to get his team better makes a lot more sense from a practical standpoint. And for the fans, the rare spring-game highlight probably doesn't make up for the often monotonous conditions that drain any drama from the exhibition.
Certainly there could be tweaks made to improve the spring games — whether it be playing other teams or adding some celebrity entertainment value — but really, these are relics that seem unnecessary at best and wastes of time and money at worst. So don't be too surprised if Addazio's plan becomes the norm at more than a few schools moving forward.
A few more links:
- Tomahawk Nation takes a look at Florida State's linebacking situation this spring, noting that Matthew Thomas could be a key for the Seminoles' defense.
- USA Today writes that Sean Maguire remains the frontrunner to replace Jameis Winston as FSU's starting QB.
- Clemson's Dabo Swinney was the target of some of John Oliver's NCAA-related ire on his show "Last Week Tonight," as Yahoo! notes.
- With Virginia set to open spring practice Tuesday, Demetrious Nicholson is making a long-awaited return to work, writes the Daily Progress.
- The Roanoke Times takes a deeper look at Virginia Tech's young receiving corps with an eye toward 2015.
Ten starters return, making the group heavy on experience. Five rank among the Top 25 players at any position this spring, making the group deeper than a year ago.
Put Deshaun Watson, Justin Thomas, Brad Kaaya, Marquise Williams and Jacoby Brissett up against the top five quarterbacks in any other Power 5 league, and the ACC looks better than just about everybody.
No surprise, especially when you consider recent history. The ACC seems to go in three-year cycles when it comes to its quarterback breadth and depth. In 2012, the ACC had one 4,000-yard passer and six 3,000-yard passers, including Tajh Boyd, EJ Manuel and Mike Glennon. All three players ended up getting drafted -- Manuel went in the first round.
Rewind three years before that, and the ACC had standouts Christian Ponder, Russell Wilson, Kyle Parker, Tyrod Taylor and Josh Nesbitt.
Since 2005, the ACC has had 13 quarterbacks drafted, including three in the first round. Winston is poised to become the fourth.
Why this has gone in three-year cycles is more coincidental than anything. The stage has been set for a quarterback revival this year because the ACC was extremely young at quarterback last year: Ten schools were forced to replace starters.
It is rare to see so much turnover at the most high-profile position on the field at so many schools at once. Even in the year that preceded 2012, only half the schools in the league had to replace their starting quarterbacks.
So there were many opportunities. Now add in another unique situation: Mostly underclassmen filled the open positions. Of the 10 first-year starters, only three were juniors or seniors. All happened to be transfers -- Tyler Murphy at Boston College, Brissett and Michael Brewer at Virginia Tech.
Several schools were forced to turn to true freshmen. Two succeeded immediately: Kaaya -- the ACC rookie of the year -- and Watson, who showed flashes of brilliance when he was healthy enough to play.
In all, five true freshmen ended up starting at least one game in the ACC -- more than any other Power 5 conference. Though Kaaya and Watson are the only two definitive starters returning, Reggie Bonnafon at Louisville and John Wolford at Wake Forest will have an opportunity to earn starting jobs back. The other, AJ Long at Syracuse, plans to redshirt now that starter Terrel Hunt is healthy.
To put the freshman numbers into further context, last year also was the first time in league history two true freshmen started on opening day -- Kaaya and Wolford ended up starting every single game for their respective teams last season.
So the growing pains from 2014 have led to what should be a big moment for the ACC in 2015. All five top-tier quarterbacks -- Watson, Kaaya, Thomas, Brissett and Williams -- already have way-too-early Heisman odds posted.
Others have an opportunity for big years as well. Pitt coaches are excited about the potential for Chad Voytik; the same goes for Duke coaches and Thomas Sirk. Florida State has been able to develop quarterbacks at will under coach Jimbo Fisher, so whoever earns the starting job there will have an opportunity to join in the top-notch quarterback club. Bobby Petrino has not been a wall flower at developing his quarterbacks, either.
When it comes down to it, Boston College is the only school that has no quarterbacks with any career starts.
So experience is nearly everywhere. So are good players.
All that is setting up to lead to a quarterback bonanza in 2015.
A look back at strong quarterback play across the ACC:
Miami, NC State, North Carolina, and Wake Forest are all taking a pause from practice while they go on spring break, so here are a few notes worth mentioning:
1. Florida State trustees have approved a bond sale to pay for an $80 million project to update Doak Campbell Stadium. No surprise there, considering the upgrades the Seminoles have made to their facilities in recent years. Not only have they built a new indoor practice facility, they completely remodeled the entire football facility, from coaches offices to the locker room. The proposed upgrades to Doak Campbell Stadium include renovating suites, adding a new premium outdoor seating section, and repainting. Construction is scheduled to begin in June, and finished in time for the start of the 2016 season.
2. Terrence Alls and T.J. Douglas have been suspended indefinitely from the Duke football team until they "uphold the academic, athletic and community standards required of a member of the Blue Devil," coach David Cutcliffe said in a statement. Alls came on strong this spring at receiver, a position where Duke really needs several players to step up. Cutcliffe had named Alls one of the two most improved offensive players this spring.
3. At least six running backs are in the mix for playing time at Clemson this fall, leaving some to wonder whether this is the best depth the Tigers have had at the position since James Davis, C.J. Spiller, Jamie Harper, and Andre Ellington back in 2008. Clemson struggled to run the ball last season for a host of reasons: injuries to the running backs and offensive line, along with quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was a big part of the running game when healthy. It was the first time in four years Clemson did not finish with a 1,000-yard rusher. But with returning players Wayne Gallman, Zac Brooks, Adam Choice, C.J. Davidson, and Tyshon Dye, hopes are high the running game can get back on its feet. If Watson is 100 percent healthy, he will add another dimension as well.
A few more links for you:
- Miami receiver Stacy Coley hopes a strong spring translates into the fall.
- Louisville picked up a commitment from receiver/cornerback Rodjay Burns.
- Pitt running back James Conner was honored for his community service.
- ESPN Insider Steve Muench lists his top 10 athletes in the NFL draft. Vic Beasley (No. 3), Kevin Johnson (No. 4), and Stephone Anthony (No. 7) make the list.
Off a thoroughly impressive performance at the NFL combine, Beasley turned heads once again at Clemson's Pro Day on Thursday. Though he did not run or lift, Beasley showed the record 72 team reps that he can also play linebacker, too. Beasley did not look out of place doing linebacker drills with two more established Tigers -- Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward.
Though he starred at defensive end at Clemson, Beasley projects as an outside linebacker on the next level because of his size and pass rush ability.
Beasley told reporters afterward, "I came out here with the right mind set and I wanted to show these teams that I can play in space and drop back as a linebacker," Beasley said.
There was an all-star group in attendance to watch Beasley and his former teammates. New England coach Bill Belichick, Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly and Buffalo coach Rex Ryan were all there. All 32 NFL teams were represented.
latest mock draft, ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr. has Beasley going No. 8 overall to the Atlanta Falcons. Kiper writes:
Beasley isn't just an athletic freak because he's been a one-man production line at Clemson, with 44.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. He can flat out create disruption and get to the quarterback, and that's exactly what Atlanta needs.
Beasley is one of nine ACC players Kiper has in the first round:
1. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay
8. Beasley, Atlanta
14. DeVante Parker, Miami
19. Ereck Flowers, Cleveland
21. Eli Harold, Cincinnati
23. Eddie Goldman, Detroit
27. Kevin Johnson, Dallas
28. Cameron Erving, Denver
29. T.J. Clemmings, Indianapolis
Elsewhere around the ACC:
- Clemson's defense doesn't want to take a backseat to anybody.
- Former Duke standout Laken Tomlinson wants to be a neurosurgeon when his playing career is over.
- A murder allegation has divided a town and sidelined the career of Brian Bell, who had his scholarship from Florida State pulled before signing day.
- Florida State running back Ryan Green is moving to cornerback.
- New York Times reporter Juliet Macur details the devastating story of former North Carolina offensive lineman Ryan Hoffman, now homeless. He blames too many hits to the head during his football career.
- Syracuse cornerback Julian Whigham is looking forward to his chance at redemption, after he says he wasted his junior year.
- Virginia will convert backup quarterback Brendan Marshall to tight end.
- Good news for Virginia Tech: Luther Maddy and Brandon Facyson had their medical hardship waivers approved.
- Bonus link! I am very disappointed to live in Orlando right now.
In a poll of ACC football coaches, 12 of the 13 who responded said they favored or would consider expanding eligibility to allow players to play five years — eliminating the redshirt completely — and every coach expressed significant reservations about potentially redshirting all freshmen.
The debate has become a talking point after the Big Ten opened discussions on the subject of improving academics for freshmen by taking them off the field to focus more on the classroom, but every coach polled said they’d seen no firm correlation between grades and playing time, and many suggested redshirting freshmen can actually have a detrimental effect on their overall college experience.
Indeed, most coaches suggest the athletes with the greatest deficiencies in the classroom are also the ones who would be hurt the most by taking away their on-field experience, while the ones with the best time-management skills away from coaches are typically flourishing academically already.
“The kids that are mature and make good decisions, a redshirt year can be good for them,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “But the at-risk student is better off if he’s playing right away and engaged with the team all the time.”
While the specifics of freshman eligibility have not yet been a topic discussed among ACC coaches formally, Doeren said he was hopeful those conversations would begin soon, so that the concerns shared by the coaches can be addressed.
ACC commissioner John Swofford appeared open to restricted eligibility when asked by the Louisville Courier-Journal last month, though he conceded the logistics would be challenging.
“It's not a new topic,” Swofford told the paper. “It's been talked about in our league, as well as others, periodically. I'm old enough to have played in that system, and it was a good one. I think it's very educationally sound, and I think we should think about and consider anything that's educationally sound. Whether we get back to that, I don't know. I don't know if it fits the times in today's world. We haven't taken any votes in our league in regard to it in recent years.”
While the ACC does not specifically track league-wide academic performance of freshmen compared with older student-athletes, the conference does have the highest academic rating overall among Power 5 leagues, according to U.S. News and World Report, and 11 of the 14 institutions had an APR better than the FBS average. It's noteworthy, too, that of the 65 members of the league's academic All-ACC team, 12 were true freshmen.
On the NCAA level, eligibility restrictions for the most at-risk athletes are already set to go into effect beginning in 2016. Students who fail to meet core course requirements, GPA and ACT or SAT scores will be forced to redshirt or grayshirt their first year.
Extending eligibility restrictions to all freshmen would be a knee-jerk reaction, however, Cutcliffe said.
“I don’t know what they’re trying to accomplish other than getting better grades out of it, and that’s just not going to happen,” he said.
What it clearly would accomplish, however, is a huge strain on the remaining rosters for all teams.
Until 1972, freshmen were ineligible for competition. But at that time there were no scholarship limits in place, and programs could easily field a team without the newcomers. Moreover, seasons were shorter, with the majority of programs playing just 11 games until the early 2000s. This past season, Oregon and Ohio State played 15 games — one shy of an NFL season — and if freshmen hadn’t been eligible to play, they might have been limited to a roster of just 60 scholarship athletes.
“That’s basically an NFL roster, but we don’t get to pick up anybody off waivers, have free agency, make trades,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “I’m not sure how that would work, and I don’t think they have any intention of giving us more scholarships.”
First, schools need to do a better job of developing programs to ensure a smoother transition for incoming freshmen to the rigors of college life. As Doeren suggested, time management and study skills differentiate students who succeed from the ones who fall behind, and instilling those in freshmen upon arrival in the summer is crucial.
Virginia’s Mike London said he shared some of the Big Ten’s concerns regarding academic performance and would be open to further discussion of potential solutions, but he said those answers should start with an in-house focus on supporting students in the classroom.
“We all know the biggest transition is from high school to college,” London said. “It’s important to me that the structures you have in place — academic advising, mentoring, tutoring — that’s as critical as anything else, and if you’re successful there, you allow the student-athletes — particularly the freshmen — to come in and have success.”
Moreover, Fedora said he’d like to see schools raise their admissions standards for athletes to weed out those who would be most likely to struggle with academics.
“Raise your standards,” Fedora said. “Don’t just let anybody in. If they’re not academically ready, then don’t let them in.”
All but one coach polled suggested five years of eligibility on the field would allow coaches more wiggle room in developing their freshmen.
“I would make everybody eligible, and then your team will be a lot healthier,” Miami coach Al Golden said. “There would never be a situation where a kid would feel like he’s letting his teammates down. The communication would improve. Health and safety would improve, and I bet our graduation rates and the number of student-athletes leaving with postgraduate degrees would increase sharply, too.”
It’s a plan that was reiterated again and again by ACC coaches concerned with player safety, academics and, of course, winning.
The bottom line among all coaches, however, is that more discussion of these issues is required, and that input from the coaches dealing with student-athletes on a daily basis should be weighed as strongly as any broad statistics being used to tout academic struggles for freshmen.
“A lot of things we do, we change before they’re truly broken,” Cutcliffe said. “I hope they listen to reason. I’d hate to see [eligibility restrictions] happen.”
In his pre-spring power rankings, Lassan has the Seminoles atop the Atlantic Division, listing the quarterback battle as the obvious top offseason priority. Despite winning the last three ACC titles, FSU has seemed to take a bit of a backseat this offseason to Clemson, the perceived early frontrunner in the division and the league.
Look no further than this space, where the four of us all picked the Tigers to win the Atlantic in our way-too early ACC predictions for 2015. We also -- well, three of us -- picked Georgia Tech to win the Coastal, and Lassan thinks no differently in his early spring power rankings though, as he points out, the Yellow Jackets do need to replace plenty of key figures at the skill position spots after last year's production.
One other interesting early slotting by Lassan? He has Duke at No. 6 in the Coastal, this after second- and first-place finishes in 2014 and 2013, respectively. There is certainly be plenty of turnover on both sides of the ball for the Blue Devils, so it will be interesting to see what David Cutcliffe does in his eighth year in Durham.
Here are the rest of your Wednesday links:
- Jameis Winston met Tuesday with the Bucs, our Adam Schefter writes.
- Deshaun Watson expects to be ready in the fall, Brad Senkiw writes on OrangeandWhite.com.
- Jamison Crowder writes in his USA Today draft diary that he is pleased with his combine performance but seeks a better 40 time at his pro day.
- Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof has received a raise and an extension, Ken Sugiura writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- Miami is getting up to speed with GPS tracking this spring, Matt Porter writes in the Palm Beach Post.
Sirk’s personality neatly summarizes the quarterback situation at Duke this spring. For the first time since David Cutcliffe arrived as head coach in 2008, there is no clear-cut, experienced passer waiting in the wings, but in the locker room, that is of little concern. Instead, there is a sense of excitement about what’s to come -- a taste of the unknown for the first time in years at that position, but also a sense that the ceiling for Sirk and the rest of his quarterback competitors is incredibly high.
Cutcliffe inherited a veteran quarterback upon arrival and has worked to groom a successor each season since. Not since 2006 has Duke opened a season with a starting quarterback who had fewer than 50 career pass attempts. This year, the depth chart includes players with a combined 16 throws in their careers.
That has complicated the locker-room dynamic a bit, as Sirk, Parker Boehme, and Nico Pierre jockey for position on the depth chart in hopes of replacing Anthony Boone, who had been one of Duke’s unquestioned leaders on offense. On the field, things are actually running pretty smoothly.
"I feel mentally and physically prepared for that role," Sirk said of his spot atop the spring depth chart. "Stepping into some big-game situations last year definitely prepared me. And the way that we practice is so much like a game that if you can just transfer it over to the field, you’ll play at a high level."
Sirk did get his share of snaps last season. He scored eight rushing touchdowns as the change-of-pace and red-zone quarterback behind Boone. That was crucial in getting his feet wet in a pressure-packed situation, Cutcliffe said, but the limited role undersold just how dynamic the redshirt junior might be this season.
"Thomas’ skill set -- all of it is good," Cutcliffe said. "He’s strong-armed, accurate, he’s got great size, and he has outstanding speed. He’ll be the fastest starting quarterback I’ve ever coached. From a character, intelligence, reliability, accountability sense, they’re through the roof."
If that makes it sound like the competition for the starting job is already over, Boehme would emphatically disagree.
The redshirt sophomore got a taste of action last season but threw just two passes, and he has spent the spring mostly working with the No. 2 offense. Still, he’s not conceding the starting job to his more experienced teammate.
"It’s good competition at every position, but especially the quarterback position," Boehme said. "It’s been clear it’s an open spot."
Of course, even if Boehme isn’t the starter, he’ll see action.
Last season, Sirk had 61 touches as the backup. The year before, Brandon Connette played in every game, accounting for 27 touchdowns. In 2012, Boone was a regular on the field while backing up Sean Renfree. Cutcliffe wants his No. 2 quarterback to get plenty of work, and that won’t change this season, he said.
With that in mind, this spring has been something of a trial-by-fire -- if not to identify the clear-cut No. 1, then certainly to ensure two quarterbacks are ready for what lies ahead.
Not only did Duke lose Boone, but two crucial members of the offensive line are gone, too. So Cutcliffe has turned his pass rush loose, looking to confuse and frustrate his new faces on offense. So far, it’s been a fun battle.
"Our defense has thrown a lot at us this spring," Sirk said. "I think we’ve done a good job of keeping up, keeping track of their blitzes, handling their pressures and responding how we need to."
After each play, Sirk, Boehme and Pierre saunter back toward their coaches and face the interrogation. What was the coverage? Where did the blitz come from? Who was your hot read?
"He stays on us, throwing the ball and making the right reads," Sirk said of Cutcliffe. "He does a great job making sure we get the ball out of our hands quick, and afterward, he wants us to come back and tell him what the coverage has been."
As spring winds down in Durham, Cutcliffe has been pleased with how many of these tests his young quarterbacks have passed.
This isn’t the old days at Duke, when a rare talent walks out the door and the cupboards are left bare. Cutcliffe sees a world of possibility in Sirk and Boeheme, and though the questions will linger at the position until they have both seen enough work on game day to allay any doubts, Cutcliffe isn’t the least bit concerned.
Last spring: Six teams had quarterbacks with zero career starts.
This spring: Two teams have quarterbacks with zero career starts.
Last spring: ACC teams combined for 76 returning career starts at quarterback.
This spring: ACC teams combined for double that mark, with 155 returning career starts at the position.
Last spring: Four ACC teams returned their starter from the previous season.
This spring: 10 ACC teams return their starting quarterback.
So even with Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston gone, it is pretty safe to say the ACC will be leaps better at quarterback in 2015. More experienced players return, though interestingly enough, the two most experienced teams at quarterback a year ago are now the least: Florida State and Duke.
Winston showed exceptional talent can make up for inexperience. So did three first-time starters a year ago, players that blossomed into bona fide stars: Brad Kaaya at Miami, Justin Thomas at Georgia Tech and Deshaun Watson at Clemson.
Add in Marquise Williams at North Carolina (who will miss the spring with a hip injury), and four quarterbacks have the potential not only to be selected preseason All-ACC quarterback, but one could very easily be preseason ACC Offensive Player of the Year.
Kaaya and Williams each threw for 3,000 yards. Kaaya led the ACC in pass efficiency and passing yards per completion; Thomas ranked No. 4 in the ACC in rushing. Watson threw 14 touchdowns to two interceptions and completed 68 percent of his passes in his injury-shortened year (while also being a valuable rusher).
In Williams’ case, he had to survive a heated quarterback competition last spring that went into the season, when coach Larry Fedora decided to play him and Mitch Trubisky. But once Williams became the full-time starter after the first month of the season, his play blossomed. As our David Hale pointed out, only five Power 5 quarterbacks had more total touchdowns (20) than Williams from game 7 until the season ended. Though Trubisky will get the first-team reps this spring, Williams is expected to return as the starter when he is healthy come fall camp.
Even beyond the top tier, a quarterback such as Chad Voytik will have a chance to improve under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
“He’s probably one of the most impressive guys in our morning runs,” coach Pat Narduzzi said of Voytik. “People talk about Tyler Boyd and James Conner. That’s maybe one of the forgotten guys. Chad Voytik is a heck of a football player. He’s a competitor.”
And at Virginia, the Hoos are going into the spring without a quarterback controversy for the first time in five years. Greyson Lambert returns as the starter, with Matt Johns right behind him.
“This is the first time in a long time you have two guys who have played, and they played pretty good opponents, kept us in some close games and they both have stats,” London said. “If you look at the rest of the league, we probably have the most experienced 1-2 quarterback duo coming back, and that has to be a positive for us.”
London is close. Louisville and Syracuse have three players with at least one career start, thanks to injuries at the position a year ago. But unlike Syracuse, which will go with healthy Terrel Hunt as its starter, Louisville has declared an open quarterback competition.
Will Gardner (seven starts) will miss the spring, leaving Reggie Bonnafon (five starts), Kyle Bolin (one start) and Penn State transfer Tyler Ferguson to get the majority of the reps.
Two more teams will have open competitions this spring: Florida State (Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino, De'Andre Johnson) and Boston College (Darius Wade, Troy Flutie). The Seminoles have at least had stability at the position under Jimbo Fisher, who is on the verge of producing his third straight first-round pick at quarterback.
BC, meanwhile, will start its third quarterback in three seasons under Steve Addazio.
“No matter what you do, your quarterback doesn’t have any experience, and that’s our job. We have to find the guy that’s going to be the best leader for this football team,” Addazio said. “For me to tell you I know that’s going to happen at a high, high level next year? I can’t say that because that position is tough. But that’s our job. To get the next guy in line and to get the most out of that guy. Whoever that guy is, we’re going to make the most mature that we can make him in the shortest amount of time.”
Unlike last year, that is a problem only a few teams have to deal with this spring.
1. Does the ACC have an embarrassment of quarterback riches? It's not every day a league can withstand losing a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to the pros (more on FSU later), but the ACC has a ton of talent coming back under center in 2015. Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, NC State, Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest all return players who started at quarterback in 2014. Thomas Sirk is the frontrunner at Duke, and he saw extended time last year as a change-of-pace quarterback, too. Then there's Clemson and North Carolina, whose talented signal-callers from last fall will miss this spring, giving others a chance to prove themselves and build depth. Which brings us to
2. What about the No. 2 quarterbacks? Deshaun Watson may be way ahead of schedule in his recovery from ACL surgery, as Dabo Swinney said Friday, and we all know what the sophomore is capable of when he is healthy. But this spring will see others get a chance at Clemson, as last year's No. 3 signal-caller, Nick Schuessler, leads a trio of quarterbacks that includes early enrollees Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel. At North Carolina, meanwhile, the Tar Heels will have to go through spring drills without starter Marquise Williams, who is sidelined with a hip injury. That means Mitch Trubisky, who split time with Williams in the early part of the 2014 season, will run the first team this spring.
3. How does FSU replace Jameis? More quarterback talk, you say? Why of course! Florida State lost just one game in two years with Jameis Winston as its starter, so replacing him is no easy task. Sean Maguire is back after an uneven performance in his lone start last year, but he will have to battle it out with redshirt freshman J.J. Cosentino, a former ESPN four-star prospect, and early enrollee De'Andre Johnson, another four-star prospect.
5. How will BC's offensive makeover look? Few coaches have had as much early success at new stops as Steve Addazio has had at Boston College, taking a two-win team from 2012 to consecutive 7-6 seasons. In 2013, he rode Heisman finalist running back Andre Williams to a strong finish. In 2014, he relied on dual-threat transfer quarterback Tyler Murphy. This season Addazio promoted receivers coach Todd Fitch to offensive coordinator after Ryan Day left for the Philadelphia Eagles, and he is looking for a more balanced attack. This could be more challenging considering he'll be without a senior signal-caller for the first time.
6. Will early enrollees make an impact? We already mentioned Johnson at FSU, but five-star safety Derwin James could have an easier path to the field, given the Seminoles' openings in the secondary. So, too, could five-star receiver George Campbell. Similar circumstances at North Carolina could allow four-star linebacker Andre Smith to start early, especially on a Tar Heels defense that had a staff makeover and is in need of a massive turnaround from 2014.
7. Can Clemson's defense again be dominant? The Tigers boasted the nation's No. 1 defense last season, but they said goodbye to plenty of talent. Coordinator Brent Venables will have his work cut for him, but bringing back Shaq Lawson, D.J. Reader, Ben Boulware, Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse is certainly a good starting point for a team that appears to be the early league frontrunner in 2015.
8. Will Louisville keep it going defensively? The Cardinals' defense was one of the bigger surprise of 2014, Bobby Petrino's first year back with the program. But all of those playmakers came from the past regime, and Petrino will be counting on transfers with troubled pasts to pitch in this year: former Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, former Georgia corner Shaq Wiggins and former TCU linebacker Devonte Fields.
9. Can Miami take advantage of the talent at its disposal? Brad Kaaya, Joseph Yearby, Gus Edwards and Stacy Coley give the Hurricanes a great starting point this spring. But Miami likely has to figure out its retooling offensive line in order to take advantage of its weapons. Questions on how this team went 6-7 last year continue to mount, and now will be as good of a time as any for the Canes to get things going and change the conversation.
10. Will Notre Dame get a quarterback answer? The Irish's inaugural year of quasi-ACC membership helped bring us arguably the game of the year, at Florida State. This year the Irish, who return 19 starters, will face six ACC teams, including contests against potential division frontrunners Clemson and Georgia Tech. But who is directing the offense under center will likely be determined this spring, as Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will battle it out after splitting reps in Notre Dame's bowl win over LSU. There is also always the chance that Golson, who said he graduates this spring, could transfer and play his fifth season elsewhere this fall.
Duke got an early start on its spring season again this year, hoping to keep the momentum going from another strong campaign this past fall. And if Saturday's scrimmage is any indication, the Blue Devils' defense is ahead of the offense at this point.
“The defense definitely won,” defensive tackle Carlos Wray said, according to the (Raleigh) News & Observer's Laura Keeley. “They got behind the sticks (tackled for loss), they didn’t convert a fourth down, they missed the two-point conversion, which is what we call a game-winner, and the referees deemed that the pass over in the left corner of the end zone was incomplete, which gave us the W."
With construction taking place at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke had only a 25-minute scrimmage, which followed 90 minutes of drills. And the results could very well turn out to be a pleasant surprise for a team that has won 19 games these past two seasons.
As colleague David Hale wrote last week, defensive line has been the one big missing piece for the Blue Devils these past two seasons. Wray is the only returning starter to the defensive line in 2015, but the continued growth and development of the unit is a positive sign.
Defensive tackle A.J. Wolf was honored as most improved defensive player this spring, sharing the distinction with defensive back Alonzo Saxton II. Offensively, receiver Terrence Alls and tackle Gabe Brander earned the accolades. Corner Jamie Cockey earned the Blue Devil Heart Award.
Saturday was Duke's 11th practice this spring.
Here are the rest of your Monday links:
- UNC will be without Marquise Williams for spring practice due to a hip injury, our Andrea Adelson writes.
- Bobby Swigert is back for BC after two years and 11 surgeries, Eric Avidon writes in the MetroWest Daily News.
- Dabo Swinney vows to fix Clemson's red-zone offense this spring, Aaron Brenner writes in the (Charleston) Post and Courier.
- Former Georgia Tech guard Shaq Mason is learning how to play center before the NFL draft, Ken Sugiura writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- Conditioning drills at 5:30 a.m. have given Pitt players chances to make first impressions with new coach Pat Narduzzi, Jerry DiPaola writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
- Condolences to the Notre Dame family on the passing of Rev. Theodore Hesburgh.
And so during the spring when Cutcliffe is busy looking for a starting QB, replacing a record-setting wide receiver and finding the heir apparent for the league’s leading tackler, it’s the defensive line that is the Blue Devils’ top concern.
It’s one issue that three of last year’s four starters on the line — not to mention both starting linebackers - graduated, but turnover on the line isn’t necessarily the biggest issue at Duke. Even through the unprecedented success of the past three years, when the Blue Devils went to bowl games each season, the D line has been more of a patchwork system than a well-oiled machine.
Since 2012, Duke ranks 51st among Power 5 schools, allowing 4.81 yards per carry to other power conference teams. The Blue Devils are 56th in sack rate, dumping the QB on just 5 percent of his passing attempts. Only Iowa State has recorded fewer tackles for a loss or no gain against the run than Duke among Power 5 programs during that span.
In other words, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
On the inside, Knowles is actually quite pleased with what he’ll have to work with this season. Senior Carlos Wray is the defensive front’s lone returning starter from 2014, and he’ll be flanked by a chorus of developing talent. Junior A.J. Wolf and redshirt sophomore Mike Ramsay have seen some playing time already, and Knowles is thrilled with the development of redshirt freshmen Quaven Ferguson and Edgar Cerenord.
“Those guys are guys we haven’t had around here -- big and strong and agile,” Knowles said. “You can see how the recruiting has gotten better. Duke’s always going to be challenged to recruit defensive linemen, and those two guys and Ramsey represent a different type of player. Overall, inside, we will be better and that has shown up this spring. Our defensive tackles are really controlling things inside.”
It’s on the edge that things are more complicated.
Last season’s three most productive ends have moved on, and their replacements are largely a handful of converted linebackers. Duke even shifted responsibilities for assistant Jim Collins, who will now work heavily with the defensive ends.
“We put Jim Collins with those guys exclusively because you have a bunch of former linebackers there,” Knowles said.
At Duke, the game plan generally involves taking some disparate parts and trying to find a few bodies that fit the mold on the line, but the moves didn’t stop there. Safety Dwayne Norman will shift to linebacker, and the plan -- once he’s healthy -- is to frequently use linebacker Kelby Brown as a much-needed edge rusher.
“[Brown] is going to have to become more of a pass rusher for us in the mold of Scooby Wright at Arizona,” Knowles said.
For that to happen, Norman needs to fill the hole on the weakside and the secondary has to be strong. Norman had made a name for himself among Duke’s coaches by playing both physically and aggressively at safety during his first two seasons on the field, but with the safety position well stocked, the move to linebacker seemed a natural fit.
So far, the spring has been a learning process for Norman, and while he’s added about six pounds to his frame, he’s focused on bulking up more for his new role.
“Learning the plays, learning the schemes, recognizing plays -- as the spring goes on, I’m getting better,” Norman said.
If he can fill the job, that should free Brown up to rush the passer more often than he has in years past, and that, Knowles said, could help erase some of the deficits at defensive end. Still, Brown has his own concerns. During fall camp last year, he tore his ACL and missed the entirety of the season. He’s been working out with the team this spring, but he’s not participated in drills or been subjected to contact since the injury. There’s ample optimism about Brown’s recovery, but he still has some significant barriers to overcome before he’s 100 percent.
“Kelby Brown in the middle helps solve a lot of problems,” Knowles said. “He’s a guy who understands the defense, knows the ins and outs and makes tackles. So he can make a lot of people right.”
For now though, there remain a lot of moving pieces. It’s a work in progress, Knowles said, but the picture is starting to come into focus, even if a few parts still don’t quite fit.
“Every year it’s gotten a little bit better,” Knowles said. “But it’s not an overnight process. Nothing around here has been. When you do things the right way, it takes time, and that’s what you’ve seen.”
The top 20 includes FSU’s Dalvin Cook, Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, BC’s Jon Hilliman, Virginia’s Taquan Mizzell and Miami’s Joseph Yearby. Georgia Tech’s C.J. Leggett also cracks the “others to watch” list. So that’s six running backs from the conference’s 14 teams, but it’s possible the list could’ve been even longer.
NC State’s combo of Shad Thornton and Matt Dayes was exceptionally good last season. Had their combined stats belonged to just one runner, their 23 touchdowns and 1,934 scrimmage yards would’ve ranked second in the ACC.
North Carolina’s T.J. Logan has been a reflection of his team the past two years -- slow starts followed by strong finishes, but he topped 92 yards in three of his final four games last year, and from Nov. 1 on, 43 percent of his rushes gained at least 5 yards.
Louisville’s Brandon Radcliff had to share the backfield with a trio of other productive runners throughout last season, but he still ran for 12 scores (third in the ACC) and had 22 carries of 10 yards or more, trailing only James Conner of Pittsburgh and Cook among returning ACC runners.
Duke’s Shaun Wilson will likely still share plenty of snaps with Shaq Powell, but no Power 5 back in the nation with at least 75 carries had a higher yards per carry average than the freshman last year.
At Virginia Tech, J.C. Coleman will be No. 1 on the depth chart after a strong finish to the season, but Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams both showed flashes of brilliance as true freshmen last year behind a lackluster offensive line.
And since this was an “on the rise” list, it didn’t even include the ACC’s player of the year in Conner.
In other words, the ACC should have a really strong corps of runners next season, and it certainly wouldn’t be out of the question for the league to end up with a half-dozen 1,000-yard backs or more.
A few more links:
- Syracuse.com has a terrific piece on the struggles of Orange signee Dontae Strickland, who was living in a motel room at the time of his recruitment.
- Virginia Tech got its first in-state commitment for 2016, writes the Roanoke Times.
- SB Nation has an interesting map of where the most first-round NFL picks who weren’t blue-chip recruits come from, and Boston College leads the charge.
- A pair of Miami legacies are hoping to anchor the Canes’ offensive line in 2015, writes the Miami Herald.
- One-time FSU great and Tampa Bay legend Derrick Brooks has given his full endorsement to Jameis Winston in advance of the Bucs making the first pick of the NFL draft, writes the Tallahassee Democrat.